After years of pounding German fields during exercises, the MoD, thanks to the peace dividend, is planning to bring massive artillery home and use it in exercises on one-fifth of the Northumberland National Park. The plans have been described as 'the greatest threat' to any of Britain's national parks for 10 years.
On Thursday, local and national environmental groups, which have long been divided over the military's use of some of Britain's most beautiful countryside, will meet in Newcastle to form a joint campaign against the threat.
Their action symbolises growing alarm among conservationists and archaeologists about the damage being done to notable landscapes by rapidly increasing Army practice manoeuvres following the return of 22,000 soldiers from Germany. Another 6,000 will follow in the next six months.
Tomorrow, Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, chief archaeologist of English Heritage, is to visit Salisbury Plain to check on estimates that one-third of the 1,800 archaeological sites have been damaged in recent months, mostly by AS90 guns. The plain is unique both for its archaeology and its wildlife: it is studded with barrows, field systems and settlements and is home to scores of rare species of plants, birds and insects.
The Army claims that it runs 'the largest single archaeological management plan in the world' on its 65,000-acre training area, which is used 364 days in the year. But according to Wiltshire's county archaeologist, Roy Canham, a huge exercise in March, involving 3,500 soldiers and 1,000 armoured vehicles, did particular damage to ground soaked after the rainy winter. Tank tracks, some 100 yards wide, cut deeply into the subsoil, turning historic landscapes into mudbaths.
English Heritage's concern about MoD damage is shared by English Nature. Both bodies recently gave evidence to the Commons defence committee's inquiry into MoD land. Only two years ago, English Nature said that the MoD did 'a good job' in managing 'the finest wildlife estate in Britain'; now it says serious injury is being done to key nature sites.
The MoD, Britain's second largest landowner after the Forestry Commission, holds some 700,000 acres of land from Cape Wrath to the north Cornish coast. It owns some 3,500 scheduled ancient monuments, 20 per cent of Northumberland National Park, 15 per cent of Dartmoor National Park, and more than 120,000 acres of Sites of Special Scientific Interest in England alone.
It took over much of its estate before modern farming practices began to destroy the countryside and its wildlife, and so preserved it. Salisbury Plain now contains nearly half of the remainder of Britain's fast-vanishing chalk grasslands, its lands in Norfolk cover the largest remaining block of scarce Breckland heaths - and the cordon sanitaire around Porton Down boasts more species of butterflies and orchids than any similar habitat in Britain.
This situation has long divided environmentalists. Walkers and defenders of national parks attack the sequestration by the military of large tracts of land that could otherwise be opened to the public, but archaeologists and wildlife preservationists were delighted that the objects of their interest are so effectively protected.
Now, for the first time, both groups are uniting against the MoD. And it is the 'peace dividend' that is stoking up the conflict.
The forthcoming Northumberland battleground is the Otterburn Training Area, a vast expanse of heather moorland that starts 20 miles north of Hadrian's Wall, where the Army is planning to bring in new and especially damaging artillery, hitherto used in Germany. Research by the Council for the Protection of Rural England has identified the moors as one of the 'most tranquil' places in the country.
Until now the ranges - which contain eight key Sites of Special Scientific Interest and many important prehistoric archaeological remains - have been relatively lightly used by infantry and traditional towed artillery. The Army now wants to bring in much heavier and more sophisticated weapons, including 'shoot-and-scoot' 45-ton AS90 guns and multiple rocket launchers which scatter shot to devastate a wide area.
The Army also wants to build nearly 30 miles of road, housing for 725 men, gun stands and observation posts in what Graham Taylor, the national park officer, calls 'the largest development proposed for any national park in recent times', and the 'greatest threat' in 10 years.
The MoD submitted its plans to the National Park Committee in February, but demanded that they be discussed in secret; the committee refused to comply.
Dr Wainwright, who says he will 'have a good old poke around' the destruction tomorrow, says: 'A lot more people are being trained, and a lot of vehicles are scooting across the plain, churning up the turf and, I'm afraid, running into monuments.'
English Nature has produced a long list of other important sites (see map) at risk. These include the Norfolk Brecklands endangered by 'more intensive military training', the 'deterioration' of rare Dorset heathland, and serious damage at Foulness in Essex and Dungeness in Kent.
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